La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

In Memoriam: Robert Tear (March 8 1939 - March 29 2011)


Tenor Robert Tear (Mar. 8 1939 - Mar. 29 2011)


It is reported today that Welsh tenor Robert Tear passed away earlier today at 72. Born in Barry, Glamorgan, Wales, Tear made his operatic deut in 1966 as Peter Quint in Britten's The Turn of the Screw. He made his Royal Opera debut as Lensky in Eugene Onegin in 1970. Celebrated for his interpretation of works by Britten and Tippet, his Aschenbach in Death in Venice received critical acclaim and is preserved on DVD. Tear last sang as Emperor Altoun in Turandot at the Royal Opera Covent Garden two seasons ago. He died shortly before 4 am London time, after suffering from cancer of the esophagus since last fall.




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Monday, 28 March 2011

This Week in Toronto (Mar. 28 - Apr. 3)

Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin (Photo credit: Fran Kaufmann)







This is a particularly felicitous week for piano fans. One of the greatest Canadian virtuoso pianists Marc-Andre Hamelin is making a welcome return to the intimate Jane Mallett Theatre at the St. Lawrence Scentre in downtown Toronto, courtesy of Music Toronto. According to the MT website, this is his 6th visit! In recent years, Hamelin has been moving away from the extreme virtuoso repertory of "finger-breakers" that he was (and still is) famous for to the more classical repertoire. Who would have thought a few years ago that instead of programming Medtner or Godowsky he would be playing Haydn! His program this time includes works by Haydn, Schumann, Wolpe, Faure, and Liszt. I understand the recital is almost sold out, so act fast! Details at http://www.music-toronto.com/piano_10-11.htm

Another high profile pianist in town this week is Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The French pianist will be performing Liszt's fiendish - and fiendishly difficult - Totentanz. The other piece featuring Thibaudet is The Shining One by Guillaume Connesson, who dedicated the piece to the pianist. Stephane Deneve, Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Dukas' La Peri and Florent Schmitt's La tragedie de Salome round up the evening. I just returned from Montreal Opera's sensational Richard Strauss' Salome, so it'll be interesting for me to hear this piece! Performances on Wednesday and Thursday at 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. http://tso.ca/Concerts-And-Tickets/Events/2010-2011-Season/Thibaudet-Plays-Liszt.aspx

And one mustn't forget the great Leon Fleisher, who needs no introduction to Toronto piano fans. He will be giving a recital of Bach, Brahms, Dvorak and Jeno Takacs. Also on the program is a piano four hands piece, Schubert's Fantasia in F Minor D. 940 with Fleisher and Katherine Jacobson Fleisher. RCM's Koerner Hall on April 3 at 3 pm. http://www.rcmusic.ca/ContentPage.aspx?name=home

If you prefer a more irreverent approach to classical music, I can recommend the duo Igudesman and Joo. These two classically trained violinist and pianist have been breaking up their audiences like no other. Currently on tour in N.A. and Europe, they will be in town for two performances of A Little Nightmare Music at the St. Lawrence Centre on April 2. If you want to see how funny these guys can be, go do a search of them on Youtube. They are presented by Svetlana Dvoretskaia of Show One Productions here in Toronto. For details, go to

Voice/orchestral fans need not feel deprived this week. Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor is still in town, for his third performance of Bach and Vivaldi, with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra under the direction Jeanne Lamon, to take place at George Weston Recital Hall in North York on Tuesday March 29 at 8 pm. http://www.tafelmusik.org/index.php

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir under the direction of Noel Edison, will present Brahms Requiem at the intimate Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts on Wednesday March 30 at 8 pm. I've gone to this theatre many times and can say the acoustics and sightlines are excellent. It is easily accessible by public transit. Also on the program is the Anagnoson & Kinton Piano Duo. Information and tickets at http://www.tmchoir.org/tmcPerformances/TMC_community.cfm








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Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Nagano's New Recording of Beethoven's Third a Triumph

Beethoven: Gods, Heroes, and Men
The Creatures of Prometheus/Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal/Kent Nagano
Analekta AN2 9838 (73 min 51 s)
****

It is a sign of the times that the MSO has no major label willing to produce its CDs. Many fine orchestras are in the same situation and several of them – San Francisco Symphony, London Symphony, London Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Toronto Symphony, etc. – have taken to producing their own recordings. Fortunately, the Canadian record company Analekta, with the help of the Department of Canadian Heritage, has been putting together several MSO projects. The latest venture, like the first one devoted to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is devoted to the music of Beethoven (including the Third Symphony) and bears the grandiose title Gods, Heroes and Men. Analekta and Nagano announced today that a cycle of Beethoven’s Symphonies is now in the offing: the Sixth and Eighth Symphonies will be recorded in April, while the Ninth will be recorded in September.

The album includes some explanatory notes by conductor Kent Nagano, whose writing style tends to the formal and prolix, but he makes some interesting points nonetheless. Nagano sees the Prometheus myth as symbolic of the entire European Enlightenment period. Prometheus is the new self-creating man beholden neither to gods nor kings. Napoleon was the Prometheus incarnate of the time and Beethoven – at least until Napoleon declared himself emperor – greatly admired this great man who would remake the world in the name of freedom. And for Nagano, that explains Beethoven’s interest in the Prometheus myth, his ballet score based on it, and the use of the Prometheus musical theme in the last movement of his Eroica symphony. But Nagano goes a step further in his musings. If Prometheus was enlightenment and progress, this progress also had a dark side. Science frees man but also enables him to annihilate himself: “The “Promethean Spirit” – for Beethoven and his time, a hope. And for us today – a warning, or perhaps even worse, - a curse…”

The CD begins with five excerpts from Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus ballet. Apart from the overture they are fragments and only occasionally compelling, but Nagano and the MSO play them with tremendous energy and attention to detail.

But the main business is the Eroica symphony. One might wonder why Nagano is recording it again only five years after making a DVD version with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (ArtHaus Musik 101 4XX). Will customers buy two recent Nagano Eroicas? Perhaps the marketing emphasis will have to be “MSO” or “Made in Canada.”

Nagano is known to be highly interested in historically informed performance practice and there is plenty such evidence in this Eroica. Tempi are quick in accordance with Beethoven’s metronome markings, vibrato is used sparingly, and the timpanist uses hard sticks. In addition, Nagano’s phrasing often involves swelling up and then falling away, as compared to the more sustained phrasing customary in music of the romantic era. There are plenty of examples in the first movement, and then again in the horn trio in the Scherzo. This historically informed approach to phrasing and dynamics verges on affectation when it is used so often.

On the other hand, there is no denying that Nagano has gone over the score with infinite care and made decisions about the shape of every phrase and the length of every note. But in being meticulous he has not ignored the big picture. This performance is consistently engrossing and often exciting.

In many traditional performances of the Eroica the first trumpet plays the entire main theme fortissimo at the climax in the coda of the first movement. You will hear that in any performance conducted by Furtwängler, Toscanini, Walter, Karajan or Klemperer. The only problem is that Beethoven didn’t write it this way. Nagano gives us Beethoven’s version. It is a little less thrilling, but Nagano almost gets the job done by the sheer intensity of the playing, especially in the strings and timpani.

The recording team deserves a lot of credit for achieving such an optimum balance between clarity and reverberation. This recording is a triumph for Nagano, the MSO and Analekta.

Paul E. Robinson

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Monday, 21 March 2011

Liszt's 200th All Icing No Cake!

by Paul E. Robinson
PETERBAY b&wcrop525
Not even the greatest of composers has left the world a portfolio of only masterpieces - a case in point being Franz Liszt (1811- 1886), undoubtedly one of the most famous composers who ever lived.
The Austin Symphony recently celebrated the Liszt bicentennial by programming the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Totentanz for piano and orchestra; the former remains solidly in the standard repertoire, while the latter barely qualifies for even an occasional performance.
Music director Peter Bay was hedging his bets in honouring Liszt. He gave us two Liszt works for piano and orchestra with Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo, but devoted the rest of the concert to works by Mozart and contemporary composer Mark Edwards Wilson.
In my opinion, Bay could have created a more interesting Liszt celebration with the addition of symphonic poems such as Orpheus or Mazeppa, or by going for broke with A Faust Symphony.
Liszt’s “sometime” assistant Joachim Raff used to run around claiming that it was he who orchestrated all of Liszt’s works at Liszt’s request. There is, however, strong evidence to the contrary. The truth notwithstanding, Liszt was only intermittently successful as a composer of orchestral music; his supreme achievements were in the realm of piano literature, written to show off the master’s prowess as a travelling virtuoso. Much of this repertoire is clever and entertaining; even more of it is shallow and silly.
Lupo’s Liszt Exciting but One-Dimensional
Lupo180The Piano Concerto No. 1 is showy music, but it is redeemed by tight construction and heartfelt lyricism. Benedetto Lupo (photo: right) tossed off the fireworks with great aplomb, without really getting much below the surface of the music.
On the other hand, he had no such challenge in Totentanz since the piece has no depth whatsoever. It is 15 minutes of variations on the four-note sequence from the Thirteenth Century chant known as Dies Irae. Used in this way, this four note sequence wears out its welcome as quickly as Liszt runs out of interesting ideas. But then, the point of performing the Totentanz – if there is one – may be to allow the soloist to impress audiences with the number of notes he/she can play in the shortest possible time; it is, as it was in this instance, a crowd pleaser! From my perspective, Totentanz may ultimately be of more value to the Guinness Book of Records than to serious musical literature.
One might describe Liszt’s treatment as “all icing and no cake, “ whereas Berlioz’s use of the same sequence in the final part of his Symphonie Fantastique suits very well the story he is telling in music. More recently, Rachmaninov used the same sequence with great imagination in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Symphonic Dances.
So that was it for our Liszt celebration, and after Totentanz, not a moment too soon.
Wilson’s Phoenix Does Not Rise to the Occasion!
MEwilson180Unfortunately, it was followed by a recent work called The Phoenix by University of Maryland composer Mark Edwards Wilson (photo: right). By way of introduction in the programme notes, Mr. Wilson gave us a great deal of high-minded nonsense about birds in American Indian, Hindu, Chinese and Egyptian cultures. Apparently “the piece journeys through a series of strongly defined tonal centers, yet it does so using methods that liberate it from the traditional tonic/dominant hierarchy. Similarly, I have felt liberated from the strictures of writing in a conventional academic style, whether those strictures are tonal or atonal in nature.” Huh? I guess it loses something in the translation.
After a promising opening melody in cellos and basses, Mr. Wilson’s music settles into workmanlike sequences, which the members of the Austin Symphony duly played with workmanlike competence.
Mozart with Style Steals the Show
And what about the Mozart? What can one say about the great G minor symphony, except that it nearly always outclasses any other piece that appears on the same programme. Peter Bay had lavished exceptional care on its preparation for this concert and the ASO players responded accordingly. Tempos sounded just right for all four movements and the “Mozart style” was ideal, at least as Bruno Walter would have understood it. That said, purist Nikolaus Harnoncourt may not nave agreed.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, Classical Airs.
Maestro Peter Bay: photo by Marita

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Sunday, 20 March 2011

This Week in Toronto (Mar. 21 - 27)

Photo: Countertenor Daniel Taylor







Now that spring break is over, the concert scene has dramatically picked up again, with a wealth of interesting events to choose from. Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor is making one of his frequent - and highly welcome - visits to Tafelmusik, for a program of German and Italian Baroque that includes the music of Bach, Vivaldi, Cavalli, Frescobaldi, Cacccini, Uccellini and Telemann. This program will be recorded on CD. There was a time when Taylor was widely heard in the concert halls and opera houses on both sides of the Atlantic, but in recent years, his appearances seemed to have focused almost exclusively in North America. We are lucky that Taylor makes Toronto one of his frequent stops. Performances on March 24, 25, and 26 at 8 pm at Trinity St. Paul's Centre, and a matinee on Sunday March 29 3:30 pm at the George Weston Hall in North York. Details at http://www.tafelmusik.org/concerts/concert_DanielTaylor.htm

Two of my favourite Canadian singers, sopranos Nathalie Paulin and Monica Whicher, both superb recitalists, will appear in the University of Toronto Faculty of Music's Faculty Artists Series on Monday 21 at 7:30 pm at Walter Hall. On the wide-ranging program are solos and duets by Purcell, Schumann, Paladihle, Massenet, Chausson, Faure, Lysenko, Britten, and Greer. The collaborative pianist is Che Anne Loewen. Details at http://www.music.utoronto.ca/home.htm

A high profile concert this week is Ovation: A Celebration of 40 Years of the Juno Awards, on March 22 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. The star-studded line-up includes the Amici Chamber Ensemble, soprano Measha Brueggergosman, violinist Angele Dubeau & La Pieta, Duo Concertante, Gryphon Trio, pianist Anton Kuerti, violinist Lara St. John, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and cellist Winona Zelenka.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting a program of Britten, Bruch, John Estacio and Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4. Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo plays Bruch's virtuoso Violin Concerto No. 1. Two performances on Wednesday Mar. 23 and Thursday 24m, both at 8 pm. http://tso.ca/Home.aspx

The Royal Conservatory of Music's Glenn Gould School is presenting its yearly opera. This showcases the talented singers and orchestral musicians at the GGS. The last two years, I attended their Cosi fan tutte and Cendrillon, both truly marvelous productions. This year, it is a double bill of Ravel's L'heure espagnole, with a piece that is relatively unfamiliar, Bizet's short operetta Le docteur Miracle. Before Koerner Hall, opera performances took place at the small Mazzoleni Hall, and there were at least three shows. Now at the more spacious Koerner Hall, it has been reduced to two, so be sure not to miss it! Performances on Mar. 23 and 25, both at 8 pm. http://performance.rcmusic.ca/viewallconcerts

Canadian pianist Leonard Gilbert, who won the Canadian Chopin Competition and represented Canada at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw last fall, is in town as soloist in the Mississauga Symphony Orchestras' The Music of Passion concert on March 26. He plays Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1. Also on the program is a world premiere by Kevin Lau, plus the Hary Janos Suite by Kodaly. Richard Moore is the Cimbalom soloist. http://www.mississaugasymphony.ca/

Opera in Concert is presenting the rarely staged - at least outside central European countries - The Devil and Kate, a comic opera by Dvorak. Mezzo soprano Marion Newman is Kate, tenor Adam Luther is Jirka, bass baritone Giles Tomkins is Marbuel. A single performance on Sunday Mar. 27 at 2:30 pm at the Jane Mallet Theatre. http://www.operainconcert.com/devil.htm

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Opera de Montréal’s Salomé a Hit


by Wah Keung Chan
photo: Yves Renaud

The Montreal Opera has a bona fide hit on its hands with its current production of Richard Strauss’s Salomé. Across the board, the cast is exceptional starting with German soprano Nicola Beller Carbone whose youthful and svelte figure made her perfect for the lead. While her spinto voice lacked the fullness of legato desired in last year’s Tosca, it was ideal in this angst filled role. Dramatically, Beller Carbone was convincing, especially in the ghastly way she handled the head of John the Baptist.

This staging will surely be noted for the full nudity at the end of the dance of the seven veils. However, the one disappointment is the setting of the dance itself. Normally, design to titillate, American director Seán Curran provided a clumsy hohum sequence that did not always flow. The 10-second pause before the big “nude” reveal telegraphed the potential shock, which went off with a yawn.

Bruno Schwengl's sets (a co-production of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, San Francisco Opera and Montreal Opera) were imaginative with its circles and the main room draw in perspective, while the costumes combined avant-garde with roman.

British bass-baritone Robert Hayward was a commanding Jokanaan (John the Basptist). Tenor John Mac Master brought the right weight and drama to the role of Herod while mezzo Judith Forst was still in fresh voice as Herodias. Tenor Roger Honeywell distinguished as the infatuated Narraboth as did Chantal Denis as the Page.

Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin made the Orchestre Métropolitain sound Straussian.

Salomé repeats on March 23, 26, 28 and 31.
> operademontreal.com

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La Scena Musicale has a block of tickets for Salomé as a fundraiser. To order, call 514-948-2520 or email donation@lascena.org

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Sunday, 13 March 2011

Ottawa Bass-Baritone Philippe Sly One of Five 2011 Met Auditions Winners

by Wah Keung Chan

Ottawa native and McGill student bass-baritone Philippe Sly has been named one of five winners of the 2011 Met Auditions according to a news flash on the Metropolitan Opera website. The five winners are:

  • Joseph Barron, bass-baritone from Pittsburgh
  • Ryan Speedo Green, bass-baritone from Suffolk, VA
  • Michelle Johnson, soprano from Pearland, Texas
  • Joseph Lim, baritone from Seoul, Korea
  • Philippe Sly, bass-baritone from Ottawa, Canada

The other three finalists include Montreal soprano Sasha Djihanian who will also represent Canada in the BBC Singer of the World Competition in May 2011 as well as the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Belgium. Soprano Deanna Breiwick from Seattle and bass Nicholas Masters from New Canann, Connecticut round out the finals.

> Review by Mike Silverman

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This Week in Toronto (Mar. 14 - 20)

Pianist Andreas Haefliger (Photo: Marco Borggreve)





We are in "Spring Break" where the majority of schools - not university level, however - have the week off. Perhaps this explains the relatively sparse concert offerings. Even the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is in hiatus. However, there are a number of interesting events happening this week, particularly piano recitals. Well known Swiss pianist Andreas Haefligher is in town under the auspices of Music Toronto. The son of the late, celebrated Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger, he combines virtuoso flair with uncommon musicality, as revealed in the liederabend with German baritone Matthias Goerne for the Toronto Summer Music Festival last July. It is good to have him back in town, this time appearing with flautist Marina Piccinini, in a program of Franck's Flute Sonata in A and Liszt's Les Annees de Pelerinage: Suisse. The concert takes place at the Jane Mallett Theatre on Tuesday March 15 at 8 p.m. http://www.music-toronto.com/index.html

Another piano recital of interest features the CD launch concert of Canadian pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico in Glass Houses Revisited, a program dedicated to the works of Ann Southam who recently passed away. I was unable to find more program details. It takes place at the Glenn Gould Studio on Thursday March 17 7:30 p.m. http://www.cbc.ca/glenngould/2011/02/southam-glass-houses-revisited.html

Canadian pianist Jane Coop returns to Toronto after a long absence to give a recital of Beethoven and Scriabin at Walter Hall, on Sunday March 20 3:15 p.m. The recital is presented by Mooredale Concerts At 1:15 p.m. is Music and Truffles, a special program designed for young audiences. Details at http://www.mooredaleconcerts.com/

The Met in HD series continues with Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor on Saturday 1 p.m. at selected Cineplex cinemas in the GTA. French diva Natalie Dessay reprises her triumph from 2008 in the Mary Zimmerman production. This time, the Edgardo is the sensational Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. He has been getting the most fantastic ovations since opening night, and his performance this Saturday is not to be missed. Enrico is French baritone Ludovic Tezier and Raimondo is Kwangchul Youn. Patrick Summers conducts. Details at http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/




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Friday, 11 March 2011

Opera of the Future: HD, 3D & Beyond

by Paul E. Robinson
525CARMEN-9948_0441-ARGIRIS-AS
I must confess that I was reaching the point where I doubted I could sit through another performance of Carmen! The plot was too silly, the music overly familiar and the characters merely cardboard cutouts; then, along came the Royal Opera House production directed for the stage by Francesca Zambello, and for film by Julian Napier. Did I mention it was in 3D?
1803DcarmenThis production of Carmen (poster: right) in 3D was a fantastic experience, and completely restored my faith in Bizet’s venerable opera. It also provoked me to question the Met’s pioneering efforts in streaming opera live in HD to movie theatres, and to wonder about how we might view opera ten years from now.
Super-Tech-Saavy Opera Here at Last!
There is no question that film technology has taken giant strides in the last 20 years. Whatever one may think of the content of his films, James Cameron has worked wonders with the likes of Titanic and Avatar. The incomprehensibility of “Inception” shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is astonishing moviemaking.
Opera came late to the full scope of possibilities ushered in by new technologies: Lotfi Mansouri started experimenting with "surtitles" in Toronto in 1983, but powerful purists like Herbert von Karajan and James Levine delayed the introduction of this simple, unprecedented audience multiplier for years, if not decades, in major houses.
Just as significant was the possibility of giving millions of people a first-class operatic experience through streaming live performances into movie theatres; this breakthrough had to wait another 20 years, not because anyone opposed it, but because of production costs and the lack of good picture quality. With the advent of High Definition (HD) technology, the latter barrier was removed. Under Peter Gelb’s leadership, the Met has taken ownership of this medium and, on the whole, has used it well.
Within the last six weeks or so, I have seen three very different "Met Live in HD" productions – Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, Adams’ Nixon in China and Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride.
I don’t much care for the music in the Adams opera – that nearly constant pulsing rhythm drives me crazy – nor do I find the libretto particularly insightful about the politics or the historical figures portrayed; overall, however, the performances of these three operas were excellent, and agreeably imaginative.
Faltering Production Values?
My caveats have to do with the work of the film crew, and the theatre in which I saw these performances. It seems to me that the team now filming the Met productions has either changed, or is becoming less thorough in its preparation – perhaps both; for example, in one of the “Fanciulla” intermission segments we had an extended interview with the folks who wrangled the horses, and then met all four horses to be featured in the next act. Exciting! Then back to the performance. I am sure I was not the only one watching for the horses! As far as I could tell, only one horse made an entrance. The stage was very dark and it appeared only briefly outside Minnie’s cabin. Perhaps all four horses did appear on stage and the director failed to capture them on camera! After that extended intermission feature on the horses, it seemed perverse, if not incompetent, not to give them their moment on stage! But, you say, who watches opera for horses anyway?
Let me give another example of what might be considered less than stellar work. In recent “Met Live in HD” productions, we have had live shots of cameras moving into position. Sloppy. I don’t recall this happening in earlier broadcasts.
As Goes the Theatre, so Goes the Show!
Compounding my disappointment was the persistent darkness which permeated the entire Fanciulla production. Nixon in China was just as bad.
I am now convinced that the projection in the movie theatre where I saw Fanciulla skewed the light values of the live production.
Over the past few years, I have seen quite a number of “Met Live in HD” showings in a variety of theatres in both the U.S. and Canada. More often than not, there has been a technical problem of one kind or another. Sometimes the streaming stopped altogether, and sometimes it had trouble starting.
On occasion, I have had to ask that the volume be turned up, and just as often that the volume be turned down. The sound quality is generally pretty good for voices, but for the orchestra, I have never heard it better than mediocre. Coincidentally perhaps, many made the same complaints about early acoustical recordings!
As if these challenges to this fabulous new way for people at large to enjoy live opera were not enough, in many theatres, the thumping cacophony from action movies being screened next door all but ruins the experience.
I have done my part to complain to management when such problems occur. I am often amazed that the other patrons just sit there and take it. No wonder it doesn’t get any better!
Perhaps most movie theatre patrons don’t realize that there is usually no projectionist in the theatre at all. In modern multiplexes one person – usually young and with limited training – sits in front of a bank of monitors displaying all eight or twelve movies being screened. As long as there is some kind of picture, this person probably thinks everything is fine. Since the “Met Live in HD” is featured infrequently and one may fairly suspect that the person in the display room knows little or nothing about opera, one may conclude that there is virtually no quality control during the streaming.
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Carmen in 3D
180Carmen_3d-thumb-450x333Now we come to the 3D Carmen (photo right: Christine Rice and Bryan Hymel) I saw last week. Again, there weren’t many people at my local theatre screening – would you believe two, in addition to my party of four? The paltry audience aside, this performance and the film experience were both extraordinary.
Unlike the “Met Live in HD” presentations, this was not a “streamed” performance “live” from an opera house - in this case, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Although it was presented on screen as a live performance, my guess is that it was filmed partly “live” with an audience and partly without. The sound quality was simply too consistent and too good, and the camera placement made one wonder if this kind of intrusiveness would be attempted in front of a paying clientele.
As I understand it, the problem with the sound on “Met Live in HD” may be that the streaming technology requires serious compression with a major loss of dynamic range and presence. Since the 3D production from Covent Garden was projected in film form, rather than streaming, the compression problem was eliminated.
3D is not new. Years ago we all experienced the amazing special effects in films like House of Wax and Bwana Devil, both released in 1953. That technology didn’t seem to have a future in character-driven drama, and it seemed unlikely that patrons would put up with sitting through every new film wearing special plastic glasses.
Then came IMAX technology (1987), which provided the 3D experience without glasses. But again, IMAX and its wrap around screen has been reserved for subject matter that clearly benefits from it, such as space exploration and plane rides over mountains.
3D Tech Gives New Depth to Opera
Now we have a new generation of 3D technology that aims to be more than a short-lived curiosity. We still have to wear the glasses, but the picture quality is superior to anything that has come before. It is not just the depth of the picture that is startling, but the clarity. We simply see more than we have ever seen before in a film. In some scenes in this Covent Garden Carmen, we feel as if we are on stage with the singers, and we have a sound quality that surpasses anything I have heard from the “Met Live in HD” screenings. The Royal Opera House Orchestra is not the equal of the Met Orchestra, but it has a presence and a depth that sounds like an audio equivalent of 3D.
Lively, Imaginative Direction and Exciting, Unfamiliar Voices
180maija500372_1This Royal Opera House production didn’t have any big “stars” – perhaps that is why the audience was so small – but there wasn’t a weak link anywhere. With her exquisite voice and deft characterization, Latvian soprano and rapidly-rising Met star Maija Kovalevska (photo: right) almost stole the show as the simple country girl, Micaëla. Tenor Bryan Hymel (Don José) of New Orleans looked great and sang and acted with real stature. In the title role of Carmen, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice sang well and acted the part with strength and allure.
This production was not about “star” turns. It was a true “ensemble” effort, expertly prepared by director Francesca Zambello, who avoided most of the clichés, while keeping the action in familiar territory in terms of time and place.
Escamillo entered on horseback in Act 2, and in the last scene ‘s procession to the bullring, Carmen appeared atop an ornate carriage – both imaginative touches, well integrated into the drama. The fight scenes were elaborately choreographed and fast-paced. The dancers at Lillas Pastia’s tavern were exciting to watch and the smuggler’s quintet was brilliantly executed.
Conductor Constantinos Carydis also deserves a lot of credit for his work in this production. He had me on his side from the opening bars of the Prelude when he took a very moderate tempo, compared to the breakneck speed that seems to be the norm these days. The same music reappears for the procession in the final scene of the opera and is obviously intended to be played at a stately march tempo. Carydis also worked wonders with the chorus. The control of dynamics in Act 1 was extraordinary.
I thoroughly enjoyed this production of Carmen, and I don’t think I was simply being bamboozled by the novelty of 3D; that said, the 3D presentation certainly heightened my experience and I look forward to seeing more opera and concerts using this technology.
From Theatre to Home Entertainment Centre?
For the record, I must mention that while the 3D Carmen was a superior technical achievement, it was far from flawless. One major issue: for part of the performance, music and action were out of sync. There is no excuse for such a basic problem, when vast sums of money are being spent on the project and when the success or failure of 3D technology itself depends on putting out a quality product each time out of the gate.
Obviously, we live in an age when the technology for entertainment and cultural products is changing rapidly. The CD and DVD age is now just about over and the replacement is downloading and streaming. And who says we need a theatre? We already download all sorts of products from the internet. How difficult could it be to offer us “Met Live in HD” on our TV sets at home? Surely that is coming soon. As for opera in 3D, that too will soon be available for enjoyment at our home entertainment centres - all of it sent to us wirelessly!
Whatever the distribution method – big screen or home TV – the product must be worth the price. Not only the opera or concert performance, but also the technology must be excellent. In a competitive market, people will pay for the convenience, for example, of seeing opera from the world’s greatest companies at their local movie theatre or at home, but only if the production gives them something worth their time and money.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."

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Monday, 7 March 2011

This Week in Toronto (Mar. 7 - 13)

Composer Murray Schafer





Continuing with the New Creations Festival, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting a concert of works by John Adams, Jennifer Higdon and R. Murray Schafer on Thursday, March 10, 8 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall. Adams' Tromba Lontana, a short piece for two trumpets and orchestra, was originally commissioned for the Houston Symphony in 1986. For the curious, this evocative piece, played by the City of Birmingham Symphony, can be heard on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX5Om6vr3AM Interestingly, Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine was scheduled to be performed at the London Proms shortly after the 9/11 tragedy. It was deemed inappropriate given the circumstances, and Tromba Lontana was used as a replacement. The second work on the program, On A Wire, a piece for chamber ensemble and orchestra by Jennifer Higdon, is a TSO co-commission and will be receiving its Canadian premiere on this occasion. The centerpiece of the concert - a TSO commission and world premiere - is the Symphony No. 1 by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. Peter Oundjian is at the helm. For those interested in this concert, do go the the TSO website and read the composers' notes on their creations. I find that when I do my homework, I get a lot more out of the concerts I attend! http://tso.ca/Home.aspx

Even though the COC's winter season is now history, opera fans need not despair - the University of Toronto Faculty of Music is presenting Mozart's ever-popular Don Giovanni, starring the voices of tomorrow. Miah Im conducts and Allison Grant is the stage director. No casting information at this time but you can be sure it will be singers with attractive, fresh, youthful voices and looking believable in their respective roles. Opening night is Thursday March 10 at 7:30 pm at the MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building on the U of T downtown campus. Additional performances on Friday and Saturday evening and there is a Sunday matinee as well. For details go to http://www.music.utoronto.ca/home.htm

The Toronto Operetta Theatre is presenting a rare piece - for Canadian audiences for sure! - the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda. I saw this about three years ago with Placido Domingo and mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera. It is full of lovely tunes and colourful costumes. The TOT production stars sopranos and COC Ensemble Alumna Michele Bogdanowicz and Miriam Khalil, as well as tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez and TOT artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin. It opens on Wednesday March 9 at 8 pm at the Jane Mallet Theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre. The show continues on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. For details, go to http://www.torontooperetta.com/


The highly innovative Tapestry New Opera is presenting The Enslavement and Liberation of Oksana G., a piece by Colleen Murphy and Aaron Gervais in a workshop reading of Act 1. According to the Tapestry website, this work is "a sprawling new multilingual work centered around a dangerous menage a trois in the heart-breaking world of sex trafficking." It has a huge cast, a few of them very familiar names - Catharin Carew, Jesse Clark, Claire de Sevigne, Lisa diMaria, Keith Klassen, Cory Knight, Andrea Ludwig, Chris Mayell, James McLennan, Shantelle Przybylo, Charlene Santoni, Curtis Sullivan, Krisztina Szabo, , Gerrit Theule, Michael York, and Monica Zerbe. Performances on March 9 and 10 at 7:30 p.m. For details, go to http://www.tapestrynewopera.com/the-work/current-season/



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Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Anne Akiko Meyers Gives Austin Prokofiev with Passion!

by Paul E. Robinson

It was just over a year ago that Austin music lovers last heard Anne Akiko Meyers (photo: above) in an imaginative and brilliantly played recital at the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas.
Meyers had recently been appointed to the faculty at the school and – with a baby on the way – she and her husband had decided to move to Austin. What a coup for the school, its students and Austinites!
We all looked forward to hearing Meyers on a regular basis; unfortunately, even the most carefully planned relationships don’t always work out. Meyers and the Butler School of Music couldn’t find a way to live with each other.
Butler’s Big Bad Blunder!
After hearing Meyers again last month, on this occasion performing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Austin Symphony, I have to think that the school has greatly diminished itself by letting this superb artist get away.
Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 is a masterpiece by any standard. I often think of it as the violin concerto Debussy would have written – had he been Russian. From the opening bars, it weaves an impressionistic aura of ever-changing colours, combining the solo violin with various winds; so it ends too, while in between we have a wider range of tempi and moods. I last heard this piece in concert with Midori, who spun the long lines with great beauty and delicacy but altogether missed the passion.
It was Meyers who reminded me that, to really get inside this piece, the soloist can’t be afraid to dig into the strings of her instrument, even at the expense of some of the tonal beauty.
Great Artist and Stradivarius Sublime Combo
Meyers is a forceful personality on stage and, when necessary, plays with intensity and abandon. No doubt her instrument – the “Ex-Napoleon/Molitor Stradivarius” – factors into what we hear, but it takes a great artist to get the best out of even the finest instruments. Meyers’ intonation was a little shaky in the beginning, but she soon settled down and proceeded to give us a virtual master class in bowing technique - not to mention the pizzicati that resounded like rifle shots out in the hall.
Meyers was very attentively accompanied by conductor Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony. The orchestra is often in the background in this concerto, but what it has to say is always important and often difficult to play. This was an impressive performance by all concerned, with Meyers consummately authoritative in the solo part.
Meyers rewarded the enthusiastic audience with an encore: an unaccompanied, improvisatory version of Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
Haydn and Stravinsky Well Programmed
While Meyers stole the show on this night, the rest of the concert was also very fine. As I don’t recall having previously heard any Haydn from Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony, it was a pleasure to see his Symphony No. 93 on the evening’s programme.
Bay made no attempt at period performance style – apart from using solo strings to start the slow movement – but, nonetheless, crafted an excellent performance. The execution of this symphony, to my taste, could have been a little more earthy and robust, but to render so much detail accurately in this repertoire is no small achievement. Bay even managed to deftly elicit some appropriate audience laughter from the rude noise in the slow movement.
Bay chose his tempi well, and balances were very good; I do wish, however, that trumpets and timpani had managed to get their triplets together more consistently in the Trio of the Menuetto.
If Haydn symphonies are rarely played in Austin, I would guess that Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, a virtuoso challenge for any orchestra and conductor, turns up just as infrequently. Fortunately, Bay and most of his players have the technical chops to handle this piece with ease, and much of it sounded first-rate; that said, there was some pretty messy brass playing as well.
Next Time a Multi-Media Petrouchka?
At their last concert, the Austin Symphony (ASO) had presented a multi-media version of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, a piece that scarcely needed the multi-media treatment, whereas, to my mind, audience appreciation of Petrouchka (ballet music) would have been greatly enhanced with some projections indicating what was being depicted in each of the four scenes played.
Last season, the ASO presented Strauss’ Don Quixote with surtitles for each of the episodes of the tone poem, and something similar with surtitles and pictures would have been very helpful on this occasion. As a ballet score Petrouchka is wonderful, but in concert it is apt to sound episodic and unsatisfying. The ending works perfectly for the ballet but is odd and inconclusive in a concert setting.
For Those Wanting More…
Anne Akiko Meyers may have parted company with the University of Texas, but she still lives in Austin. She now has a 7-month old daughter (Natalie) with whom she travels widely. Meyers has recorded the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 and produces several new albums every year. For more about Meyers and to follow her blogging, visit her website.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."




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